With a win over North Texas on Wednesday, Iowa State is now one win away from the finals of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
To get there, though, the Cyclones have to defeat an old friend.
Led by former longtime Iowa State assistant coach Dawn Sullivan, The UNLV Rebels will visit Hilton Coliseum on Saturday for a semi-final match against the Cyclones. Sullivan, who had been an assistant under coach Christy Johnson-Lynch for the previous 13 seasons, has led the Rebels to a 22-11 record in her first year as head coach and will attempt to defeat her mentor in their first ever head-to-head match.
Sullivan left Iowa State for Las Vegas this spring and was replaced by Fiona Fonoti, who's in her first year as an assistant coach at the collegiate level. When asked about Sullivan, Johnson-Lynch was incredibly complimentary of her former assistant
"She was a huge piece of this program and obviously I love her and respect her, and I'm happy to see what she's doing there," Johnson-Lynch said. "She's already had an awesome impact."
That impact has come in the form of a drastically improved campaign this season. In one year, Sullivan has increased the team's win total from eight to 22, good for the fifth-best total in school history. That turnaround is tied with Bradley, whom the Cyclones swept last week in the NIVC, for best in the country.
Before the North Texas match, Johnson-Lynch admitted that she'd been thinking about a potential battle with Sullivan and the Rebels. Though the two don't talk as much as they used to, Johnson-Lynch said that she's very much looking forward to Sullivan's return and that they still occasionally exchange texts.
"Not a whole lot. A couple of good lucks here and there or nice win," Johnson-Lynch said. "I think she's settled and happy, and I'm glad to see that."
It wasn't just Johnson-Lynch excited about Sullivan's return, either. Multiple players on the team have mentioned how big of an impact Sullivan has had not only on the program, but on them as individual players.
One of those individuals is senior right side hitter Hannah Bailey, who played under Sullivan for three years. Bailey raved about Sullivan's coaching abilities and said that she was excited for a chance to play against her team.
"I think for us, it would be really exciting," Bailey said. "When she left, we were so happy for her. So just to be able to see her be a head coach and play against her team, it'll be a really cool experience."
Even players who weren't around Sullivan as long felt her impact. Piper Mauck, who only played under Sullivan for one year, made it know that Sullivan was a key figure in her development as a player and a person during her freshman season.
"Dawn is just a great coach and she's a great person off the court too," Mauck said. "She was kind of like the team mom, kind of check up on how your grades are in class and just ask you how you day's been. She's just an awesome person, and I'm really happy to see her get a head coaching position at UNLV."
Beyond Sullivan, the match is also a reunion of sorts for sophomore outside hitter Josie Herbst, who played for the Rebels in 2016, her freshman season. Herbst played four matches for the Rebels that year, in which UNLV made the second round of the NCAA tournament.
In terms of players to watch, perhaps the best player for the Rebels this season has been sophomore outside hitter Mariena Hayden, who leads the NCAA in aces with 106. That mark is currently the third-best in NCAA history since 2008, when the NCAA moved to the 25-point scoring format.
Saturday's winner will move on to the NIVC championship, where they'll take on the winner of Saturday night's match between Tulane and College of Charleston. If Iowa State wins, the championship match will be held in Hilton Coliseum on Tuesday night.